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Group targets redistricting effort in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — A local citizens' group is lobbying state lawmakers to be fair in the way it draws up the state's new congressional boundaries with the latest census figures.

Recent census data brought good news to Utah, indicating that the Beehive State will get a fourth U.S. Congressional District and a stronger voice in Washington, D.C. But previous experience has led one group of Utah voters to call on state legislators to avoid the temptation to reconfigure districts to their political advantage and to the detriment of local voters.

The Citizens Council — a grass-roots panel of concerned area voters — met Monday at Westminster College to discuss and present the first draft of a redistricting proposal.

Every 10 years, state lawmakers are required to realign congressional districts in addition to various local legislative and community districts based on population changes in the latest census. The yet-to-be-appointed redistricting committee will be dominated by Republicans, who hold majorities in both the state House and Senate. Public hearings will be held through the spring and summer before a final decision is made.

GiGi Brandt, first vice president of programs for the League of Women Voters of Utah, said her group is very interested in seeing that the realignment process is done in a fair and transparent manner.

"In 2001, (lawmakers) split Salt Lake County (and Salt Lake City) into three congressional districts," she said. "We don't think that is really the best way to govern."

Brandt said, as much possible, municipalities should be included in one district to prevent gerrymandering.

"We want (the districts) identifiable so that people know who they are voting for," she said.

Gerrymandering is the practice of setting electoral districts, rather than using uniform geographic standards by attempting to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan, incumbent-protected and neutral districts.

In 2001, the Wall Street Journal called Utah's redistricting effort one of the most egregious cases of gerrymandering in the country, she noted.

"That's kind of a dubious distinction," Brandt said.

Considering the competitive nature of politics in Utah, Brandt said the possibility for "shenanigans" is high with so much at stake based on the latest census data.

"Power is always something to be grasped at," she said. "We hope that (lawmakers) will (behave) in a fair manner. They need to be watched carefully."

e-mail: jlee@desnews.com